Desmond Dunham Credit: Thelma Ortega

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Desmond Dunham thought he was going to be the next Michael Jordan. He played basketball while growing up in his hoops-obssessed hometown of Gary, Indiana, and was an All-Star Little League baseball player. But it was cross-country that changed the trajectory of Dunham’s life. While competing for the cross-country team at Horace Mann High School, Dunham learned to use long distance running as an outlet and escape from the personal challenges he faced.

“Home was supposed to be a safe place, a safe haven for me, and there were a lot of days where it wasn’t,” Dunham tells City Paper. “And it was those long runs and the time that I spent with the community of my brothers in high school that helped to really balance a lot of things in my life.”

Dunham, 49, remembers that as a kid, he could sometimes be angry and temperamental. He dealt with dyslexia during his childhood. Dunham’s mother, Helen Joyce Dunham, worked 24- to 28-hour shifts in customer service to help provide for Dunham and his older sister, Nikki. And in the 1990s, Gary, a once prosperous steel town, became known as the murder capital of the United States.

Dunham shares these experiences in his autobiography, Running Against the Odds. The book serves as a love letter to the sport—one that continues to play an important role in his life—and the family members and mentors that guided Dunham, who is Black, to become a successful distance running coach in a sport that is predominantly white. The title also refers to his 2007 Eleanor Roosevelt High School girls track team’s underdog status against the Jamaican high school teams’ runners at that year’s Penn Relays track and field competition, the oldest and largest competition of its kind in the U.S.

“I just want to remind [readers] that they’re not alone, that we all have our challenges and our obstacles,” says Dunham, the director and head coach of cross-country and track and field at St. John’s College High School. “It doesn’t look the same for everyone, but I really hope that they see the humanity in my book and see themselves and some of the issues and challenges that they’re going through in life.”

The thought of writing a memoir first crossed Dunham’s mind more than a decade ago. Sometime before the 2007 Penn Relays, he huddled with his girls indoor track team at Eleanor Roosevelt, where Dunham coached from 2003 until 2008, for a motivational talk. Snow blanketed the ground, Dunham recalls. His runners remained focused on beating the vaunted Jamaican teams in the 4×800 and 4×400 relays in a rematch from the year before. “Operation Penn Relays” was underway.

Dunham reminded the runners of going after their goals, and how he, as a former collegiate runner at Howard University, understood the pressures they faced. “I always try to identify with my athletes,” Dunham says, “because I don’t want them to see me as just this dictator who’s asking for a lot and not relate.” When he finished talking, one of his runners told Dunham: “You need to write a book.”

A seed had been planted, and about seven or eight years ago, Dunham and his wife, Jami, were returning from a family reunion in Gary, when he told her that he wanted to share his life story with others. When COVID-19 hit, Dunham decided to make the book his pandemic project. He initially thought it would take six to eight months to complete. The process ended up requiring 18 months.

Dunham knows that his own athletes appreciate his vulnerability and so he takes the same approach in Running Against the Odds. He writes about his late father’s abuse and alcoholism in heartwrenching detail, while also trying to make sense of the trauma that his father, Theodore Dunham Jr., likely experienced as a Vietnam War veteran and Black man in America.

“Instead of counseling and intensive therapy, my dad self-medicated with gin, vodka, bid whist, and poker,” Dunham writes, adding that he believes his father suffered from PTSD. “He came home knowing that regardless of how many Americans he had protected in Vietnam, he as a Black man would not be respected or protected in America.”

But Dunham chooses to focus more on the love he did receive. He praises his mother and the other positive influences in his life, like his aunts, grandmothers, and his high school cross-country coach, Roosevelt Pulliam. Like many kids, Dunham longed to belong in a group and he tried out for several school sports teams. He was cut three times: from elementary school basketball, middle school basketball, and ironically, he notes, from middle school cross-country. On a hot August day, Dunham recalls in the book, he was playing basketball with a few friends when one had to leave to go to cross-country practice. All basketball players, Dunham learned, needed to play football or run cross-country. 

He felt that he was too small for football and decided to give cross-country another shot. For tryouts, Dunham had to complete a practice run with his teammates. Fighting through cramps and the blistering sun, Dunham finished before collapsing in the pain. “When I crossed the line at the end, it was one of the most rewarding and one of the most gratifying and satisfying experiences,” Dunham says. “And I had never, ever experienced anything like that with any sport. It was something that became addicting.”

Running gave Dunham a sense of community that he craved. His talents and skills as a runner eventually brought him to Howard University where he received a partial scholarship to run track and cross-country at the historically Black college. Dunham doesn’t write about his own coaching until two-thirds into the book and saves the tale of his history-making Eleanor Roosevelt team toward the end, in a section that details the Penn Relays matchup against the Jamaican runners, which track enthusiasts will enjoy.

Running shaped Dunham at some of the most pivotal moments of his life. In the fall of 1997, Dunham was on the way to BWI Airport with Jami, his then-girlfriend—their immediate futures figured out. They would live in Indiana together while he attended medical school at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. But his Isuzu Rodeo broke down before they reached the airport. Dunham took it as a sign. He would stay in D.C. to be an educator and running coach, something he had done on a limited basis. That decision led him to become a coach at Archbishop Carroll, followed by Eleanor Roosevelt, and then the University of Maryland at College Park from 2008 to 2012 before returning to coach high school at the soon-to-be-renamed Woodrow Wilson High School, where he still teaches. He also started the DC Redwings youth running club and now leads the running programs at St. John’s in Northwest.

At many cross-country environments, Dunham stands out as one of the few Black head coaches. He mindfully weaves the topic of race throughout the book. “As a runner and then as a coach, I took pride in dispelling the stereotypes and disrupting the myths that Black kids can’t run long distances,” Dunham writes. It’s an issue that he still notices today. Dunham believes that improving diversity in distance running requires intentional work. He wants to be a role model to kids the same way his coaches in high school and college were to him.

“I just think that all student athletes should be reflected, that the school population should come pretty close to your team population,” Dunham says. “And I think it is sad when we don’t have that mixture. But I think that we have to be creative, we have to be willing to sometimes have those tough conversations, and also just make sure that we are opening up the doors for everyone to feel comfortable, and that they can thrive in that environment.”